Chasing the carrot

I am not what anyone would call an achievement hog (or the other terminology where you leave off the “g”). I do not really go out of my way to check off unfinished tasks in my WoW log. Most of my achievements are there as a by-product of my normal play style, and in any guild ranking by achievement points I am pretty far down the list. I am happy to participate in guild achievement nights, and I am always ready to help others get special achievements, but left to my own devices I generally do not directly pursue them unless they lead to something else I really want. (Achievements to unlock flying would be an example.)

But that does not mean I am not goal-driven. It’s just that I prefer to set my own goals rather than have Blizz list them out for me. As I have explained before in this blog, I set pretty much the same goals for myself at the start of every expansion, roughly:

  • Progress through every raid tier at whatever level of play my raid team is doing.
  • Gear my main to approximately whatever the “max” level is for the level of raids I run.
  • Max out all my professions on all my characters.
  • Level all my alts, at least to LFR minimums.
  • Spend enough play time with my alts to be minimally proficient with them.
  • Develop one or two alts to be able to do normal raid mode.

I get a real feeling of satisfaction when I judge that I have reached these goals.

My frustration with Legion is that, for many of these goals, Blizz has either vastly increased the time necessary to do them, or they keep moving the line to where I can never really feel I have completed them. Both factors tend to make most of these personal goals unattainable. I only have so much play time available, for example, and if gearing up an alt (mainly artifact AP) takes twice as long as in a previous expansion, then I will only be able to gear up half as many alts. (That’s not the actual ratio, but you get the idea.)

But the most frustrating part of all this has been that it is not possible to “finish” my main’s artifact (and thus gear) leveling because Blizz keeps introducing more and more levels of power to it. Consider:

  • They initially told us once we got all the basic traits done and got to the final gold trait, anything beyond that would be minimal and we should not feel we had to diligently pursue it.
  • Then along came a patch and lo and behold they added a whole new set of traits we had to build until we got to “Convergence” on our weapons.
  • But after that, said Blizz, no worries, anything beyond that would be minimal and we should not feel we had to diligently pursue it.
  • Then of course along came patch 7.3, and Blizz once again yanked the football away and pushed us to chase billions and billions of AP every week to fill in — yes, you guessed it — another trait table, this one based on relic slots!

As usual, now they are reassuring us that once we get all relic levels unlocked, any further increases to artifact power are minimal and we should not feel we have to bust our sweet little asses pursuing AP after that.

Mmmmmmm-hmmm. Sure.

This is all old news, of course. We should no longer be surprised when Blizz lies to us time after time. (Remember their progressive lies about the role of garrisons in WoD.) “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” We have all rightly complained a lot about the endless AP grind in Legion, and even Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas seemed to realize it in a couple of oblique comments in yesterday’s dev Q&A.

The thing is, this will not change in Battle for Azeroth. We will not have an artifact weapon, but instead we will have at least 4 pieces of artifact-type gear. The mechanics will be different, but these things will not:

  • We will be required to have one certain piece of gear (the neck piece) in order to even function in the expansion. This is like our being required to have an artifact weapon in Legion. It is not possible to participate in the expansion without it.
  • The neck piece will in effect control the trait tables for at least 3 other pieces of gear. We will have to “progress” the neck piece in order to unlock various traits capabilities for other gear slots. Sound familiar?
  • Our artifact weapon special gear will gain power by our accumulation of massive amounts of artifact power azerite. We will get this by participating in the MAU-enhancing activities Blizz designates. For the entire expansion.

No matter what Blizz says about powering up the new gear, you can take it to the bank that the enhancement process will be never-ending. For anyone wishing to raid or even to do Mythic+ (Blizz’s new stealth raiding activity), there will be no logical stopping points. As soon as there starts to be a slight dip in MAU, Blizz will introduce an entirely new set of powers to be unlocked by diligently chasing more azerite. Count on it.

And so, finally, here is my point: I do not know how much longer I can continue chasing something I can never catch in this game. I am not sure I can reset my brain to give up a set of personal goals that have served me well ever since I began playing WoW. There is a slow burning anger in me that Blizz so cavalierly devalues my goals and my play style, and a growing nugget of rage that not only do they tell me what my goals will be but that they keep moving those goals further down the field. 

No, I am not going to rage quit. I will wait and see what BfA brings. In the big picture, when I engage my logic rather than my emotions, I know it is still an amazing game. I must certainly be having fun with it, because otherwise I would have quit long ago.

But I cannot shake the feeling that each time I log on I am being backed into a smaller and smaller corner, being forced into a play style and set of game activities set not by me but by Blizz. If I may shift metaphors here, I am sick of having a carrot tied to my head so that no matter how fast I run I can never catch it, and I am sick of Blizz telling me a continuous stream of lies about my chances of doing it.

I want the damn carrot, Blizz!

Next week is American Thanksgiving week, and I will be taking a blog vacation during that time to tend to relatives and cooking and football. Look for me back here on November 27th. For those of you who celebrate turkey day, enjoy!

Hati, we hardly knew ye

If we needed any additional confirmation that Blizz not only does not care about the hunter class, but that they have absolutely zero idea of what it means to be a hunter, it is this: Apparently Hati will just disappear when artifact weapons disappear in Battle for Azeroth.

Now, I admit I have not really been much of a fan of Hati, certainly not in the clumsy way Blizz implemented it. The intro quest to get him was, I thought, very well done, but unfortunately that was pretty much the highlight of the entire mechanic. It ended up promising something that Blizz never delivered on. BM hunters thought they were getting an awesome second pet, but it turned out to be nothing more than an unimaginative DoT visual, with worse pathing and attack speed than our regular pet, and far less control.

Hati could not be renamed, he had absolutely zero player-controlled special abilities, and he had (and still does) an annoying tendency to just disappear after portal events. For a while he could even rather easily die in combat and even after rezzing your regular pet, Hati would not rez for a very long time, leaving the hunter without a weapon. Blizz never really came to terms with the balance between the actual artifact gun damage and the damage done by Hati. BM hunters got the short end of the stick almost every time there was an artifact weapon upgrade, because Blizz for some reason cannot abide the thought of an ever-more powerful hunter pet. (In spite of the fact that they designed Hati to be the most important part of the BM hunter artifact!!)

Even the art model was sloppily (and apparently hastily) rendered, so that Hati looked like an animation from years ago. Only after BM hunters pitched a fit (because that is the only way to get Blizz’s attention — calm and logical comments will not do it) did Blizz give us a way to change his appearance. Even with that, though, Blizz deprived BM hunters of one of the fun aspects of Legion — the cool artifact appearance quests every other class had meant approximately zero to BM hunters, since they did not alter Hati’s color or other appearance in any noticeable way. The only way to really change his appearance was to make him look like a pet you already had in your stable.

So Hati in my opinion was a huge Blizz failure. Worse, it was one they appeared to not give a damn about.

But here’s the thing: as bad as Hati was, I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with him. He is part of my posse. I feel unbalanced without two pets by my side everywhere I go. He has gone through every part of my Legion experience with me, from leveling to dungeons to progressive raids to world and emissary quests. I mean, he even went with me in my space travel to Argus, for crying out loud. For Blizz to now summarily dismiss him like he was vendor trash just seems wrong to me.

And the fact that Blizz does not recognize this goes to the very core of their approach to the hunter class: They simply do not understand the heart and soul of a hunter. A hunter pet is different from a mage’s water elemental or a warlock pet or a DK one, there is a far more personal level of engagement, a far greater degree of anthropomorphism. A BM hunter’s pet in many ways defines the player.

Unfortunately, I see nothing on the horizon that gives me hope Blizz will ever treat hunters better. Last week Bendak over at Eyes of the Beast posted a quick wrap up of some of his Blizzcon impressions and takeaways, including some reports he got about hunters from people playing the BfA demo. The BM hunter changes noted in the demo seem ok, but very minor and without an overall integrated purpose — more like a committee threw in some suggestions and voted on a few tweaks with no overall goal, just a requirement to “make some changes”. (Although Tranq Shot will be back, so that is exciting I suppose.)

MMO-C has been publishing various side interviews from Blizzcon for the last week. The one that got my attention was the one published today. An interviewer named Automatic Jak asked some pretty in depth questions of a class balance developer. Unfortunately AJ is, I guess, a healer, and the questions were therefore very healing-centric. But still there were a few interesting tidbits from the dev that I rather cavalierly interpreted in terms of hunter changes for BfA. It was actually the most informative interview I have seen regarding some of the team’s class balance philosophies.

  • The team went into Legion knowing that they might have to revisit some of the classes that received major changes once player feedback was collected
  • There most likely will not be complete class revamps again any time soon.

Here’s my interpretation of these two bullets from the hunter perspective:

  • The team made a deliberate decision to ignore all the insightful experienced hunter comments during the alpha/beta tests and figured they could wait to respond to the couple of things hunters howled the most about once Legion went live. Even then, they decided they could delay any response for several months. And even then, they decided they would merely respond to a couple of easy fixes, not do the hard work necessary to make the entire hunter experience smooth and fun again.
  • The whole SV hunter destruction was a mistake, and while it was fine to inflict it on the hunter class, no other class deserves such shabby treatment. Oh, and no real changes to the poor SV abomination that Blizz already created.
  • The team likes classes having unique abilities.
  • Going forward a big question is what unique abilities each class should have.
  • The team wants to spread out class strength and weaknesses more.
    Utility will be spread out and balanced more in the future.
  • Everyone should feel like they have some sort of cooldown to help them survive.

Translation: Blizz is proud of the fact that they have destroyed the whole super-utility role of hunters and wants to ensure they play no such special role in the future. Instead, everyone should be special. 🙄

So yeah, it seems Hati will be gone, hunters will get some scattered non-unified set of restored abilities, and “all classes will be above average”…. I am underwhelmed. And I will miss Hati.

Intermission

There are almost certainly going to be spoilers in this blog for the foreseeable future — if you do not wish to have any pre-knowledge of the next WoW expansion, do not read it.

Blizzcon has come and gone, and we got the next expansion announcement many of us were expecting. Over the next few weeks we will undoubtedly learn a lot more about it, as Blizz gives out more information and the data miners get down to business and possibly as the beta kicks off. There are lots of sites that recap everything we know so far, and I am going to assume you have a basic idea of what was revealed at Blizzcon.

I have not really dug into all the details of what we know, but here are my preliminary and somewhat unorganized thoughts after watching a few of the meatier Blizzcon events about 8.0 (“Battle for Azeroth” — an expansion title certain to be abbreviated as BfA and of course lampooned with endless variations of Big F***ing Something-that-starts-with-A.)

Excitement. Specifically, there was not much of it, either from the dev team or the fans. No gigantic buildup like we had for WoD or Legion. No great unveiling of some cool new enemy, no major changes to baseline game mechanics, no new classes, no new planet. We are going back to Alliance v. Horde and staying on Azeroth.

I do not think this is a bad thing. As I have written before, I am kind of ready for a little break from fighting The Great Battle For Azeroth’s Existence. And I get a nervous tic whenever I hear Blizz talk about “exciting new changes” because lately that seems to have turned out badly. So I was relieved when I did not hear about any Really Big Changes coming in BfA. I watched most of the WoW events while connected with some guildies on Discord, and their overall reaction was pretty much, “Cool about the next xpac, but I am not super excited about it.”

BfA almost seems like an intermission expansion, a sort of place holder that allows Blizz to tweak many of the sweeping class and other changes they made in Legion. So I am kind of excited to not be excited, if you know what I mean. I think this is a good move on Blizz’s part.

Blizz attitude. I was encouraged by the general tone of the devs as they interacted with players and presented panel topics. In particular, I thought the Q&A session was the best we have had in at least a couple of years. The questions did not seem to be cherry-picked for the purpose of Blizz tooting their own horn, the dev panel gave what I thought were very straightforward and realistic answers, and the live questions were for the most part respectful and well-expressed. (With the exception of the idiot who wasted time by asking about the ceilings in raids… But even that was treated with more respect than it deserved and explained in terms of some of the technical camera reasons for it. Bravo, Blizz.)

Learning from Legion. Many of the announced changes were clearly a result of things that had not worked well in Legion, and I was gratified to see Blizz has in fact been listening to players about many of the real current annoyances. One recurring theme seems to be a move away from the extreme spec-unique approach to classes. Not only has this been the underlying cause of a lot of Legion player complaints, but I suspect Blizz found out how unmanageable it is to have what are basically 36 separate “classes”. A few of the changes I thought important:

  • No artifact weapon. The replacement mechanic — a neck piece that is essentially a relic-enabler for certain pieces of gear — echoes the whole 7.3 relic crucible, but Blizz did say that the neck piece will not be spec-unique, that it will work for gear for all specs of a class.
  • Possible gear simplification. I did hear Hazzikostas say something along the lines of gear level should matter, and that it is not cool to have to carry lots of gear around with you, so I am tentatively optimistic that BfA will un-complicate  many of the gear problems we see in Legion.
  • Somewhat related to the above, it seems like the neck-enabled gear will be a replacement for tier, eliminating the horrible Legion system that made old tier more useful than current tier and that forced complicated computer simulations for every possible gear combo.
  • Raid buffs will return. Blizz seems to understand that players like to feel they contribute something special to group efforts, and they as much as admitted that stripping away all raid buffs was a mistake. We will see.
  • When it came to the question of legendaries, at first I understood Ion Hazzikostas to virtually confirm what a terrible idea the Legion version of these had been and say they would not continue in BfA. However, in retrospect, I think there was less clarity than I thought, and I am not sure Blizz is done with bad implementations of legendaries. Still, it seems they do not plan to make legendaries unique to specs, which I hope will be an improvement no matter how they decide to implement them.

There were a ton of other things I both liked and disliked about the new expansion, and over the next few months I am sure I will have more to say about them. Just a quick mention of the ones that caught my attention for now:

  • Bigger backpacks are on the drawing board. Yes, at last we will get a somewhat larger basic bag, beyond the tiny 16-slot one we have had ever since the start of WoW.
  • Some sort of whole-character transmog. I was unclear about this, but apparently there will be some ability to morph certain classes-races into variations of those. Or possibly have pseudo-independent characters of these other races. For example there will be Darkiron Dwarves and Void Elves. It’s not obvious to me why this is so cool, nor under what circumstances it may occur, so stay tuned. Honestly, I missed the whole point of this, so maybe ignore anything I say about it.
  • Flying will be on the same basic schedule as for Legion, so I guess that means something like 6 months into the expansion.
  • A substance called azerite will be the new artifact power — it will enable the magic neck piece and we will grind it forever. Get ready.
  • Esports-friendly activities will continue and be expanded in the form of Mythic+ dungeons and the new Warfront scenarios.
  • Blizz is phasing out the entire PvP or PvE server system. All servers will be both, with a toggle switch players can set to determine under which set of rules they play. (I am assuming this may have similar implications for the dwindling number of “RP” designated servers, but I don’t know that for sure.)
  • There will be 6 new realm character slots added per account.
  • Blizz will have legal, Blizz-controlled Vanilla servers up and running in the foreseeable future. One hopes this will finally shut down the whimpering of the atavistic crowd that cannot seem to come to terms with change, but that seems unlikely. We will see.
  • Eastern Kingdom will be Alliance-controlled and Kalimdor will be Horde-controlled. There will be some “footholds” in each, though — for example, the Exodar will still be Alliance. Also, the starting areas will not change for the races, rather when one gets to something like level 110 the true nature of what happened will be revealed. And yes, Teldrassil has been torched by the Horde, so go back and get your idyllic screenshots now.

The only thing really missing from the entire BfA discussion was timing — we do not know when it may be targeted to go live, nor do we know when even the beta will start. I expect sometime after the first of the year for the beta (or more likely another “special alpha” for the select few), and the expansion going live by around November. Again, stay tuned.

It was definitely an interesting weekend.

Friday tin-foil hat time

As we move into Blizzcon 2017, yesterday Activision-Blizzard held its Third Quarter Earnings Call, releasing the made-for investors summary of its performance from July 1 through Sep 30 of this year. I sped through the call transcript, but did not really find anything more than is in the short MMO-C summary:

The quarterly Activision Blizzard earnings call was today:

  • Activision Blizzard had 384 million Monthly Active Users in this quarter.
  • Blizzard had the biggest third quarter online player community in its history, with a record 42 million Monthly Active Users.
  • Overwatch and Hearthstone Monthly Active Users grew year-over-year.
  • The Overwatch community rose to over 35 million registered players.
  • The company achieved a new milestone with players spending over 50 minutes per day in Activision Blizzard games.
  • Hearthstone: Knights of the Frozen Throne expansion led to double-digit percentage growth in time spent year-over-year for the franchise.
  • World of Warcraft released a new content update in the quarter, leading to stable Monthly Active Users for the franchise quarter-over-quarter and continued participation in value added services.
  • Activision Blizzard delivered a Q3 record of over $1 billion of in-game revenues, with record performance year-to-date.

Like a lot of WoW players, I get annoyed with those who continually predict the imminent end of the game. It is still a robust leisure experience, it still has a lot of players, and Blizz is still pumping considerable resources into it. But this quarterly report did give me pause, in particular:

  • Blizzard is doing very well overall, but most of its success is due to franchises other than WoW.
  • When it suits their purposes, Blizz is perfectly willing to publish numbers of players, rather than strictly MAU — for example, they said that Overwatch has 35 million “registered users”.
  • The best they could say about WoW is that the game had “stable” MAUs for the quarter, and that Blizz was successfully marketing “value added services” to the player base. I do not find this to be an optimistic statement.
  • And the most interesting statement of all, because it perfectly encapsulates the entire Blizz approach now: The company achieved a new milestone with players spending over 50 minutes per day in Activision Blizzard games. If we needed any more insight into what WoW will look like in the next expansion, this is it: Every possible aspect of it will involve endless grinds.

As a little thought experiment, I tried to apply a fascinating technique first devised several decades ago by J. Richard Gott, a Princeton University astrophysicist. (Check out my source on this, a Washington Post article from a few weeks ago. You can also find Gott’s technique written up in scholarly papers. It forms the basis for his Doomsday Argument, a fun springboard for some lively debates.)

You have to bear with me on this, because it takes a bit of setting up, but here we go:

Gott visited the Berlin Wall in 1969, and he began to wonder how long the wall dividing that beautiful city would last. Some people thought it was just a transient political aberration that would be gone in short order, others thought it could last hundreds of years. So Gott laid out a rudimentary timeline, marking 1961 as the beginning point and “unknown” as the end point. He divided the line into equal quarters, though of course he could not say how long each quarter represented.

He reasoned that his 1969 visit fell somewhere on that timeline, and statistically there was a 50% chance that his visit occurred in the second or third quarters of the wall’s existence (the middle half, if you will). He had no way to tell if his visit occurred at the beginning of that middle half or at the end.

Source: Washington Post

However, if it fell at the beginning of the 2nd quarter, that would mean that each quarter was eight years long, in which case the total life of the wall would be 32 years, thus it would come down in 1993.

On the other hand, if his 1969 visit occurred at the end of the third quarter, that would mean each quarter was a bit less than 2.7 years long, and the wall could come down as early as 1971. Thus, he calculated there was a 50% chance that the wall would come down between 1971 and 1993. In reality, it came down in 1989.

The beauty of this technique was that it relied on statistics only, not on any political calculations or predictions of human behavior. Now, of course, a 50-50 chance is not always the odds we want if we are trying to predict something of huge importance — we would like somewhat better odds in those cases.

The technique allows for this, although you lose some precision in the process. You simply extend the part of the line any given point of time is. For example, instead of assuming a 50% chance that his visit occurred during the middle 50% of the timeline, Gott could have assumed there was a 95% chance his visit occurred during the middle 95% of the timeline. This was almost a sure bet, but it meant the calculations would have predicted the Berlin Wall would last somewhere between .2 and 320 years. Even taking into account it had already lasted 8 years at the time of Gott’s visit, the most he could have said about it with 95% certainty is that it would come down sometime between 1969 and 2281. Not all that helpful.

Still, I find the technique fascinating. So I decided to apply it to the question of how long the game of WoW will last.

Using 2004 as the start point and an unknown as the end point of the game, we are now at point 2017. Applying Gott’s technique, there is a 50% chance that WoW will end sometime between 2021 and 2056. I am pulling for the latter, but if I add in some non-statistical analysis, I am forced to admit the possibility that an earlier date is more likely:

  • The game is already technologically ancient, and this kind of classic MMORPG is a dying genre.
  • The game does not really lend itself to ATVI’s strategic vision of mass esports events, mobile apps, and fast-paced arena-type contests.
  • The game accounts for less and less of Blizz’s revenue each quarter, and it is only a matter of time before they decide they can no longer devote the resources necessary to maintain it.
  • The kinds of things Blizz has to do in order to keep the game corporately viable seem to be exactly the kinds of things that drive players away, resulting in a downward spiral. Example: Introducing more and more endless grinds in order to keep MAU “stable”.

If, adding in the analytical points I described, we assume the earliest end date — 2021 — that could mean we will see at most two expansions after Legion before the final demise of the game. And if we do not get the next expansion within, oh, say six months, it could mean the expansion after Legion will be the final one.

All wild speculation, of course, but hey it’s kind of fun to indulge in some tin-foil hat theories on a nice Friday fall day.

With that, enjoy your weekend, and let’s hope we have some great new announcements coming out of Blizzcon in the next few hours.

On world quests and rewards

In a recent post in his game design blog, Greg Street (aka Ghostcrawler) wrote a few words on the art and science of game rewards. It started me thinking about how Blizz has structured rewards in Legion. Overall, I would give Blizz a C+ on this aspect of the expansion. They have done some really innovative things, but on the other hand they have made much of the reward process needlessly frustrating and/or manipulative. I am not talking about difficult — I don’t mind working to achieve something I want in the game — I am talking about things that just seem to operate on the “gotcha” principle for no good reason, or mechanics Blizz thinly disguises as “content” but are in reality vehicles for forcing certain kinds of game play.

Today I want to focus on one part of the Legion reward system: world quests.

I liked the idea of world quests early in Legion, and I am still basically a fan, especially with the emissary twist. My main hunter does not need any of the gear or gold or class hall resources they offer, but I still usually crank out some of them for mats or AP (anything above 300k, more about this below). But I run as many as I can of them when I am focusing on one of my alts. Most of them are fairly quick (especially now that I can almost run them in my sleep), and frequently the rewards are useful to my alts.

I think the tying of faction rep to these quests was a good idea, and I don’t mind that vendor-purchase items are in turn tied to achieving faction rep. If I am interested in being able to buy things from a particular vendor, I am fine with working a bit to be allowed that privilege.

I make sure to run all the offered emissary quests on whichever alts I am working on  — if I can find the time — mainly for the chance of getting a legendary, but I am kind of conflicted about this aspect. It is a fact that you cannot play a character in Legion to any reasonable level of competency without two of the “good” legendaries — whatever they may be for that spec. So I chase them on my focused alts, mainly via emissary quests and LFR, but it makes me feel manipulated. It seems bad enough that every character must have a certain weapon and only that weapon for the entire expansion, without requiring certain other additional gear as well.

But the main reason I still run world quests is part of the minus side of them: artifact power. Blizz has had a stunning turnaround on the whole idea of AP.

Prior to 7.3, Ion Hazzikostas several times reminded us that once a player reached Convergence on their artifact weapon, the amount of AP required to advance it further was, BY DESIGN, ridiculously high in an almost logarithmic progression. This was because — so he told us — Blizz did not want players to feel like they had to continually grind AP, that the idea was that it would just be a somewhat small additional reward for doing normal game activities like emissary quests, random instances, mythic dungeons, etc. Additionally, so he said, the design was that players who played many hours each day would not have a significant artifact level advantage over players who might play only a few hours a week.

In other words, the whole artifact trait mechanism was designed to become less and less important once the 7.2 Convergence point was reached.

Then, in what seems to have been a sudden reversal of design policy, in 7.3 Blizz introduced a whole new artifact weapon leveling system in the form of relic traits and the crucible. They tied it to AP and Convergence levels, and to make the new levels possible to attain they re-introduced a form of artifact knowledge, except they removed player control of AK progression and just time-gated it with weekly increases. The net result was to make AP once again important to players and to make grinding it a productive activity again.

And a true grind it is. There are several reddit threads in which mathematically-inclined people have analyzed ratios of AK to AP and estimated time required to get to certain points. But the thing I have noticed for my hunter is this: In spite of both AK increasing every week and AP increasing with each new level, it still takes me about a week to gain a level. This will change after I reach level 75 and after AK rates stop increasing, but it strikes me that this a whole new way to gate character power. Blizz for some reason has opted for an incredibly complex method to do this — why didn’t they just set a limit on how much AP you can earn in a week, or how many levels you could increase your artifact level?

Even more interesting, why was there this complete 180 on AP design? Why did we go from the official “We don’t want you to chase AP” to “Here is a whole new reason to chase AP — ready, set, GO!” ?

One obvious reason: MAU. My guess is that they saw their MAU levels falling as the AP rewards from game activities became less and less relevant for main characters. Players just stopped doing the daily stuff that was offering what had become insignificant rewards. So the magic metrics fell, causing this part of the Blizz world to start to look shaky in corporate eyes. Swinging into action — and without any apparent trace of embarrassment — they reversed themselves on the AP design philosophy, because chasing AP is the one thing that would bring raiders back to daily hours in the game. And raiders are the group Blizz values these days — basically anyone who runs regular or above raid tiers and Mythic+ dungeons.

It is nice that I can increase my alt artifact weapon traits by 10-15 or even more levels a day just by running a few world quests, but it is demoralizing that I have to continue to run them on my main just to feel like I will not be letting my fellow raiders down. Especially after all the assurances from Mr. Game Director Hazzikostas that after reaching Convergence, size artifact power doesn’t really matter.

If the all-important MAU numbers were falling, why could Blizz not have taken a different approach? For example, they could have significantly increased the non-AP rewards for emissary and world quests, and for early world bosses, or they could have added more cool mounts or pets as rewards for the non-Argus quests. They could have implemented some sort of catchup gear currency to be earned outside of Argus. They could have instituted a mechanism for alts whereby for the first two legendaries you win you get to pick which ones you want. They could have made Blood of Sargeras account bound, giving mains a reason to go out and get it, and giving alts reasonable-level gear with which to go and run their profession instances or to join regular raid groups or even just to compete on Argus without serial dying.

All of these things likely would have kept the MAU numbers up a bit. But Blizz does not design for players like this, they design for raiders, so the only idea they had was to re-institute the AP grind. Not the kind of creativity we are used to from Blizz.

So yeah — Legion reward system has some real A+ moments. Unfortunately it also has a lot of fail moments. Overall grade C+.

The problem with designing for the squeaky wheels

This blog is not exceptionally popular. On any given day I probably have less than 200 readers, small potatoes in the blogosphere. Of those, maybe less than 10% ever post comments, but I am nearly always impressed with how thoughtful and well-expressed those comments are, even when someone takes great issue with something I have written. I have rarely had to deal with trolls or rage-filled screeds. So I feel a tiny bit of pride that I seem to have attracted something akin to the top echelon of WoW blog readers.

I don’t reply to every comment, but I read every one of them, and even when I do not reply, I do think about every point made in them or sometimes just appreciate the humor of a well-expressed smartass retort. Every once in a while, though, a reader makes a comment that puts my brain into overdrive. This happened with a comment on my last post, from Marathal, a fellow blogger.

You can go back and check it out for yourself, but basically Marathal made the point that Blizz adjusts their game at least in part to remedy shortcomings expressed by players who have left the game, rather than by trying to figure out why people who have not left are still playing. This may seem like a subtle distinction, but the more I thought about it, the more profound I thought it was.

WoW has millions of customers, and with that many there will always be a pretty significant turnover — people leave the game, new people take it up. But Blizz sits up and take notice if many more are leaving than are joining. We do not know if this is happening lately, because they stopped publishing subscription numbers after the great exodus during the first few months of Warlords of Draenor. But we are still feeling the effects of game design changes Blizz made in response to that exodus.

The big public complaint about WoD was that there was a lack of “content”. People left the game, so Blizz tells us, because they felt that once they had leveled up their characters, there was nothing to do. Thus, in Legion, Blizz went berserk overcompensating for this perceived shortfall. We have world quests (basically just a lot of dailies, renamed), an artifact weapon designed to be endlessly upgraded, flying  gated both by time and long-grind achievements, lottery-drop super gear in the form of RNG legendaries (lots of them, so once you get one you do not quit trying), a renamed WoD garrison with continuing quest lines, professions that can only be maxed out by participating in activities that require high level gear and good luck, quality of life items gated behind tedious rep grinds, Mythic+ dungeons designed to keep players running the same instances over and over indefinitely, classes/specs that only perform adequately with certain levels of gear with certain secondary stats— well, you get the idea.

Basically, Legion is a response to all the players who quit in WoD. It is Blizz saying, “You want content? I got yer content right here, whiners!”

Did it work to bring these players back? We don’t know for sure, absent subscription numbers, but certainly it brought some back. There is anecdotal evidence that many of the same players who left in WoD and came back for Legion, though, continue to take significant breaks from the game as soon as they have plowed through whatever the current patch is, waiting for another flurry of game activity with the next patch, then leaving again, etc. I would love to see the weekly-fluctuating MAU numbers over the course of an entire Legion patch.

Meanwhile, what about the players who did not leave during WoD? Why did they stay, in the face of the gigantic “No content!” outcry? Clearly, this was not a good enough reason for them to quit the game. I can only speak for myself, but I stayed because I think the game is big enough for me to always find my own content, and for something more complex: I like the feeling of maxing out my character for the expansion and then having total freedom to do whatever the hell I want to when I log on. It is my favorite part of every expansion. I usually set some loose game goals at the start — max out professions, be a contributing member of a heroic-level raid team, enjoy most of the expansion’s perks, have the leisure to develop all my alts, etc. — and when I reach that point I feel a real sense of accomplishment.

I feel like Legion has taken that away from me. In their zeal to appease the players who demand to have their game goals set for them, Blizz has designed an expansion that never lets me achieve mine.

One quick example: Our raid leader — a terrific generally laid-back guy — recently said that he expects all raiders for the next tier (due in about 3 weeks) to have achieved level 75 on their main artifact. Given that I am currently only at level 69 and that each new level requires billions and billions of AP, my life for the next 3 weeks will pretty much consist of me grinding out every AP-reward world quest every day, because I want to keep raiding in the next tier. It will also require me to run some M+ dungeons (which I am not a fan of) to get the huge weekly AP bonus from running a +10 or higher. In short, a year into Legion, my game time will not really be my own.

Sure, I brought this on myself by wanting to be part of a raid team. But my point is, Blizz designed our main piece of Legion gear to be not only indispensable, but also a never-ending grind. Our RL is merely doing his job requiring us to keep up with the grind, because that will actually make a difference in our next-tier progression rate. This may be the first time in WoW history when merely having the previous tier’s gear will probably be insufficient to tackle the next raid tier — we will need to have a separate progression on our weapon, one not connected directly with tier.

Blizz designed the artifact weapon — and nearly all of Legion — to appease the short-attention-span people who left the game in WoD, not to appeal to the people who did not leave.

There is an obvious danger in this design approach. Blizz runs the risk of not being able to keep up with the demands of the easily-bored, and in the process of trying, of making the game ultimately abhorrent to the steady, patient, loyal group of players that are still the game’s core, no matter how much Blizz may wish to deny it. Each of us has our own point of no return, our own final straw. We may not be able to articulate what that is, but we will recognize it when it happens. For me personally, I feel a loss every time Blizz removes game play options, every time they force me into a certain track in order to achieve one of my goals. With Legion, I have seen that trend accelerating. What happens in the next expansion may well determine how much longer I stay in the game.

I wish Blizz would see what they are doing to their most loyal players, and I wish they would realize that they cannot sustain a game entirely with the hard-core pros. (It’s not the elite top 10% who pay the bulk of the monthly subscriptions, after all.) WoW won its preeminent place in the gaming world because it was available to nearly everyone, because it offered as much to the casual player as it did to the hard core types. It really was a game for the masses, and I am saddened that apparently Blizz believes that was a bad thing. For it now to become accessible almost exclusively to the pros, to those who have the desire and luxury of devoting hours to it every day, is in my opinion a betrayal of the very roots of the game.

So, yeah, a shout out to Marathal for really making me think. And thanks to my few but loyal readers — you are tops in my book.

Thinking is thirsty work, though, and and thus it is time for me to grab a beer and start a weekend. 😉 You all enjoy yours, too.

Blizzcon. Whee and danke shoen.

I think I mentioned a few weeks ago that, for the first time in my WoW life, I bought a virtual ticket to Blizzcon. The only reason I did it is because I wanted the in-game mount they were using as an enticement. Clearly, the ploy worked for some people. I do like the mount, have had some fun flying around in it (not in Argus, of course, because that would be so wrong).

But now I find myself with this virtual ticket to something that I am having a hard time getting very excited about. Kind of like when your gramma gives you $20 and a ticket to the Wayne Newton Comeback Concert Tour for your birthday — you are glad for one part of it, not so sure about the other. Still, you have the ticket so you might as well use it, you think, maybe there will be a wine bar…

In an attempt to generate a little interest in the event, I checked out the official schedule, looking for events I might actually be interested in. The main 2-day schedule calls for something like 40 total hours of actual Blizzard game info sessions on their various franchises, and 70 hours of esports. (I did not actually count the open “community” time, nor did I include the some 15 hours of esports events that happen prior to the opening ceremony.) If you needed any more confirmation that Activision Blizzard is all in on esports, this is it.

Of the game info events, a bit under 8 hours are identified specifically as WoW events. This seems very balanced, given that Blizzard has 5 major IPs/franchises, so I guess at least WoW is holding its own, getting its full 1/5 share of the 40 hours. About half of the WoW-specific events seem like they are just fluffy time fillers, but still, they are WoW-centric, so that is something I suppose.

As far as I know, there hasn’t been much in the way of leaked rumors about any big WoW-related announcements coming in Blizzcon. I guess that could be because Blizz has really clamped down on leaks, or it could just be that there will be no big announcements. I am betting on the latter.

But with only one hour devoted to “What’s Next” in the game, my hunch is that we will get some amorphous description of the next expansion, but no concrete announcement, no expansion name or target date, no information on major new mechanics or changes, etc. Which means my original prediction that Legion will be a 3-year expansion is still viable. Absent very detailed progress on the next expansion, with a beta starting around the first of the year, it seems impossible that we will have a new expansion by Legion’s 2-year anniversary. If I am wrong, I will publicly and happily eat my words.

I really hope the speculation from earlier this summer on the next expansion (Old Gods/Kul Tiras) is not true. I am not sure what would be better, but my gut says almost anything.

And, since I am shamelessly trying to pad this post because I have almost nothing to write about, here are a few links to things I have recently written about the next expansion, in sequential order starting in February of this year. You don’t have to click on them, I am just filling up space. Also setting up a quick reference so after Blizzcon I can go back and verify that either I was brilliantly prescient or epically wrong. 😉

One thing that seems likely is that after Blizzcon we will at least have a general idea of where the next expansion will take place, even if we do not have many details. The real speculation and deep dive data mining can start in earnest then.

Usually my favorite part of Blizzcon is the WoW Q&A, but lately this genre has become little more than a way for Blizz to toot their own horn. I am getting tired of hand-picked questions like, “Can you tell us what part of Argus you like best, and how the team came up with such an awesome idea?” I will probably tune in to watch this year’s session, but I am not expecting it to be very exciting.

So, yeah, only about 10 days until Blizzcon. I am trying to feel the hype but failing at it. Maybe as the time gets closer I will build up a little more enthusiasm. But hey, even if I don’t, at least I have the mount.